- As spring breakers returned home last year, they brought the new coronavirus with them and fueled a surge of COVID-19 local communities.
- Experts say that they think another surge could come from this year's spring break revelry.
- Quarantining after returning home from spring break can help reduce the risk of a COVID-19 surge.
In March of 2020, just weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, millions of vacationers flocked to beaches, cities, and mountain towns in the United States to celebrate spring break.
There were crowds and packed bars, but few face masks or physical distancing measures.
Spring break was a prime opportunity for the new coronavirus to spread quickly — and it did, according to a 2020 study released after spring break travel tapered off.
As spring breakers returned home, they brought the virus with them and fueled the spread of the disease in their local communities.
We’re seeing the same situation play out again this year, and health experts fear 2021’s spring breakers could trigger another surge.
Will spring break travelers cause new outbreaks?
But this doesn’t mean we're in the clear just yet.
“For events like spring break, this means ignoring well-known infection control measures recommended by health professionals, thus creating the likelihood of a resurgence,” said Bosa-Osorio, noting that popular spring break locations like Florida no longer have mask mandates.
Dr. Scott A. Weisenberg, an infectious disease specialist and the medical director for NYU Langone’s Travel Medicine Program, agrees.
“Any time there are large groups of unvaccinated people in close contact with each other — particularly indoors — that carries the risk of significant transmission which will lead to a large number of new cases,” said Weisenberg.
Spring breakers who contract the new coronavirus run the risk of passing it locally where they're vacationing, but also in their communities when they return home.
This is especially true as the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom and thought to be more transmissible, spreads across the country.
The B.1.1.7 variant is already estimated to be the cause of 8 percent of new cases in Florida, a popular spring break location.
“This surge in young people may be followed weeks later with increased cases in more vulnerable individuals,” Weisenberg said.
This is another reason to accelerate vaccination of at-risk groups, Weisenberg adds.
Only 13.5 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, which means the virus can still spread rapidly.
As long as we haven't reached herd immunity — which occurs when most of the population has some level of immunity through both previous infection and vaccination — new surges will likely occur, according to Bosa-Osorio.
Health experts are also concerned that a new surge could lead to new variants.
“The more the virus transmits, the more chances it has to replicate, mutate, and emerge new variants,” Weisenberg explained.
The risks for unvaccinated and vaccinated travelers
Unvaccinated travelers — many of whom include the young adults traveling for spring break — have the highest risk of contracting and transmitting the new coronavirus compared to people who are vaccinated.
“They can reduce their odds of getting infected by avoiding indoor settings, particularly with poor ventilation,” said Weisenberg. Masks and physical distancing can also curb the spread.
Vaccinated spring breakers have a lower risk of getting sick, since the shots are highly effective. Clinical trials have found that the vaccines are 100 percent effective against hospitalization and death.
While vaccinated people will be protected, there will likely be breakthrough infections.
What steps should spring breakers take when they return home?
Bosa-Osorio says unvaccinated spring breakers should quarantine from others for about 2 weeks after their trip. It might also be a good idea to get tested for COVID-19 1 to 2 weeks after returning.
Vaccinated people have a lower chance of getting severely ill, and recent evidence suggests they’re also less likely to transmit the novel coronavirus.
“Their need for isolation and testing after travel is not well defined, though the risk is not zero, so if they are around vulnerable individuals they should continue mask-wearing and social distancing after [their] return,” said Weisenberg.
The bottom line
During spring break in 2020, just weeks after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the new coronavirus spread quickly. Spring breakers also brought the virus home and triggered new outbreaks in their local communities.
With millions of people, many of whom are unvaccinated, flocking to bars and beaches for this year’s spring break, health officials are concerned that there may be another surge in the coming weeks.